I know that my constant yammering about the importance of civic education can seem pretty tiresome –especially in the abstract–so I was initially gratified to read a Brookings Institution article focusing on a very tangible example.
Emerging research confirms the damage being done by misinformation being disseminated by social media, and that research has led to a sometimes acrimonious debate over what can be done to ameliorate the problem. One especially troubling argument has been over content that isn’t, as the article recognizes, “per se illegal” but nevertheless likely to cause significant. harm.
Many on the left insist digital platforms haven’t done enough to combat hate speech, misinformation, and other potentially harmful material, while many on the right argue that platforms are doing far too much—to the point where “Big Tech” is censoring legitimate speech and effectively infringing on Americans’ fundamental rights.
There is considerable pressure on policymakers to pass laws addressing the ways in which social media platforms operate–and especially how those platforms moderate incendiary posts. As the article notes, the electorate’s incorrect beliefs about the First Amendment add to “the political and economic challenges of building better online speech governance.”
What far too many Americans don’t understand about freedom of speech–and for that matter, not only the First Amendment but the entire Bill of Rights–is that the liberties being protected are freedom from government action. If the government isn’t involved, neither is the Constitution.
I still remember a telephone call I received when I directed Indiana’s ACLU. A young man wanted the ACLU to sue White Castle, which had refused to hire him because they found the tattoos covering him “unappetizing.” He was sure they couldn’t do that, because he had a First Amendment right to express himself. I had to explain to him that White Castle also had a First Amendment right to control its messages. Had the legislature or City-County Council forbid citizens to communicate via tattooing, that would be government censorship, and would violate the First Amendment.
That young man’s belief that the right to free speech is somehow a free-floating right against anyone trying to restrict his communication is a widespread and pernicious misunderstanding, and it complicates discussion of the available approaches to content moderation on social media platforms. Facebook, Twitter and the rest are, like newspaper and magazine publishers, private entities–like White Castle, they have their own speech rights. As the author of the Brookings article writes,
Nonetheless, many Americans erroneously believe that the content-moderation decisions of digital platforms violate ordinary people’s constitutionally guaranteed speech rights. With policymakers at all levels of government working to address a diverse set of harms associated with platforms, the electorate’s mistaken beliefs about the First Amendment could add to the political and economic challenges of building better online speech governance.
The author conducted research into three related questions: How common is this inaccurate belief? Does it correlate with lower support for content moderation? And if it does, does education about the actual scope of First Amendment speech protection increase support for platforms to engage in content moderation?
The results of that research were, as academics like to say, “mixed,” especially for proponents of more and better civic education.
Fifty-nine percent of participants answered the Constitutional question incorrectly, and were less likely to support decisions by platforms to ban particular users. As the author noted, misunderstanding of the First Amendment was both very common and linked to lower support for content moderation. Theoretically, then, educating about the First Amendment should increase support for content moderation.
However, it turned out that such training actually lowered support for content moderation-(interestingly, that decrease in support was “linked to Republican identity.”)
Why might that be? The author speculated that respondents might reduce their support for content moderation once they realized that there is less legal recourse than expected when they find such moderation uncongenial to their political preferences.
In other words, it is reasonable to be more skeptical of private decisions about content moderation once one becomes aware that the legal protections for online speech rights are less than one had previously assumed. …
Republican politicians and the American public alike express the belief that platform moderation practices favor liberal messaging, despite strong empirical evidence to the contrary. Many Americans likely hold such views at least in part due to strategically misleading claims by prominent politicians and media figures, a particularly worrying form of misinformation. Any effort to improve popular understandings of the First Amendment will therefore need to build on related strategies for countering widespread political misinformation.
Unfortunately, when Americans inhabit alternative realities, even civic education runs into a wall….